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On Guard! The Story of SAGE

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On Guard! The Story of SAGE

Published ca. 1956

Innovations in computer technology as weapons in the Cold War.

Run time 12:15
Producer IBM Corporation, Military Products Division
Sponsor IBM Corporation, Military Products Division
Audio/Visual Sd, C


"Protection comes high. Today we must be on guard in the sky when it comes to protecting our resources...the national resources that are so precious to us." Cut to a shot of children playing at the school playground.
There is nothing unusual about On Guard! Ñ it's an ordinary film, one of many thousands produced by military contractors to boast of their participation in the defense of our nation. And just this very ordinariness is what makes it interesting, because it proves how central military and defense consciousness was to mid-century culture, and speaks to the magnitude of the effort to enlist technology in fighting the Cold War. It's also a highly ephemeral film, since the technology it reveals became quickly outdated as intercontinental ballistic missiles replaced bombers as vehicles for the delivery of nuclear weapons.
On Guard! introduces the SAGE (Semi-Automatic Ground Environment), a heavily computerized early warning system designed to guard against enemy aircraft. For its time, this was novel technology Ñ room-sized computers and giant "Displayscopes" Ñ and the film seeks to humanize it to a technologically unsophisticated public. "You are listening to the heartbeat of the SAGE computer. Every instrument in this room is constantly monitoring, testing, pulse-taking, controlling." Cutting back to images of children playing and a little girl sleeping with her doll, it asks "what better reason for an electronic defense?" and tells us that "the future of America is secure."
Interesting for its glimpses of huge mainframe computers maintained by well-tailored women and white-shirted men, On Guard! reminds us of the close relations between the computer industry and defense establishment throughout this century. ENIAC, the first stored-program digital computer, was created as part of a World War II defense project. Much of IBM's research and development activity has been supported by the Department of Defense. And, as many of us know, the Internet was developed with funding from DOD's Advanced Research Products Agency.

Contains several great old computer shots.

LS missile in the middle of a valley, mountains in the background
One missile is fired, camera follows it into the sky
B/W planes in formation
CU kids on playground

CU color, school bell on outside brick wall
School children run, get in line to march inside
CU Air Force plane (bombers) in sky
Mushroom cloud from nuclear explosion (B&W)
MCU facade, IBM building, people walking into building
Men working, SAGE computer
Model of IBM, nucleus is sage computer
CU SAGE, magnetic drums, tapes and cores
Radar, Texas Tower, ships, aircraft

CU Air Force man at desk
CU of computer data card
CU hand inserting packet of data cards, pushing button
Computer sorts cards
CU model of IBM

MLS Direction Center, square white building, no identification
CU display scope, yellow disk center
VS blurry footage of computer printer in action, woman monitoring it
VS/LS room with SAGE computer

2 men standing together, camera pans down to ledger they are looking at
Camera pans down to DISPLAY SCOPE
MLS dark of man with headphones monitoring display scope (huge old CRT video terminal with large circular yellow screen)

Model of interior of IBM - across SAGE
MCU dark, men in display scope room
CU sideview of man with headphones and mouthpiece, sitting in front of display scope
CU images in display scope
CU finger pushing buttons
CU display scope
MCU dark of men in headphones and mouthpieces in front of display scope
B/W MCU Air Force plane in sky
B/W MCU three missiles, they are fired
Back to men in front of display scopes

MCU white building, no identification
CU IBM-brand electric clock, says 11:55
Airplane flying
Three Air Force men lined up in front of display scopes
CU from behind of man in front of display scope (radar type)
CU clock, 11:56
B/W Air Force men, one answers the phone, they take off running out of the door towards Air Force fighter planes
B/W CU from behind of helmeted pilot as plastic bubble closes and seals him into plane
B/W flying fighter
CU IBM-brand electric clock, 12:00

Three school children skipping out of school towards car and mother
Mother and child at car, little girl and mother look up to see three Air Force fighter planes
VS Air Force planes in sky
CU corner of computer

Camera pans men at drawing boards, white lines over picture
B/W pilot pouring "coffee" into cup
VS B/W plane taking off, one with parachute in back opened
CU computer maintenance

Men at drawing boards
Girl and mother play with doll beds on living room floor
VS CU electronic assembly units, computer parts
CU computer part with "rain" falling on it (durability testing)
CU hands put computer unit in water tank
MLS men in parkas opening heavy metal door, walk into the room, door closes, man in white coat looks door behind them
CU ceiling lights being turned on
CU rain spraying
CU mechanical machine, switching switches back and forth (durability)
CU electronic units
CU vibration test on computer unit
CU taxiing airplane
CU hand taking out electronic board and putting it in somewhere else
CU hand inserting tube
CU hand pushing ADVANCE button
CU man leaving room, door reads RESTRICTED AREA KEEP DOORS CLOSED, men coming in the same door
CU cardboard boxes
CU man with tube working on electronics
CU construction site for plant in Owego, New York

Scale model of B52, nose of the plane, showing "brain equipment", radar dish just below the nose
Model - computer, display scope, etc.
CU fighter in the air
VS/CU pilot in helmet and gear
CU hand working on plane (interior)
Dark CU woman putting light bulb in lamp, puts shade on and turns on light
CU sleeping girl
MCU parents watching sleeping girl
Sleeping girl



Reviewer: LynFaber - favoritefavoritefavoritefavorite - July 13, 2010
Subject: mashup based on this now at the Archive
I think the exterior shot of the IBM facility at the start is the IBM Main Plant in Poughkeepsie, NY, where many of our fathers worked (as well as among other locations)during the 1950s-1980s

This clip was so good I based a mashup with original music around it:
Reviewer: Rick Dunlop - favoritefavoritefavoritefavorite - December 1, 2007
Subject: Ah, the good old days, great memories
I was a Computer Tec on the AN/FSQ-7 from 1967 to 1970. With aproximately 55,000 vacuum tubes, it was the largest computer ever built. Surprisingly due to the redundent design, daily maintenance schedule and troubleshooting diagnostics (and of course highly trained computer tecs) it had remarkable uptime. I went from the AF to the civilian computer industry in 1971 and was amased at how long it took industry to catch up to many of the concepts that this monster had designed into it from the beginning. Amazing!
Reviewer: Steve Nordby - favoritefavoritefavoritefavoritefavorite - July 16, 2007
Subject: The best defense $ can buy
With billions of dollars, IBM was making the defense of America as easy as changing a lighbulb. To think that the cheapest cell phone you can get now has more power than the room of computers shown should give you pause. Technology and money spent on weapons do nothing in the long run to keep the world safe.
Reviewer: GFAFBresearcher - favoritefavoritefavoritefavoritefavorite - March 29, 2007
Subject: Were there asbestos containing components?
I am wondering if anyone could assist me in some research into the AN/FSQ-7 used at the SAGE buildings. Does anyone know if there were asbestos containing components in the computer. Were the electrical wires "AF"- asbestos shielded? How about insulation to keep the parts from overheating. I'm working on a case in which a longtime AN/FSQ-7 technician died from an asbestos related cancer. Any and all help would be appreciated. Please contact me at
Reviewer: DrWind - favoritefavoritefavoritefavoritefavorite - August 3, 2005
Subject: SAGE Building In Newburgh NY Needs Your Help
An effort to preserve the SAGE command center at Stewart Airport in Newburgh NY and open it to the public in the form of a Cold War museum needs your support! The building, with computer equipment and glass tracking boards fully intact in the interior, is slated for demolition in the new Stewart Airfield Master Plan.

Background on current preservation effort:

A web site about the SAGE building:
Reviewer: AtlMagic - favoritefavorite - March 18, 2005
Subject: Sage
i was a computer tech in the 70's and worked on equipment like this in the Pentagon. Too bad they didn't show more of the old card readers, disk drives, tapes drives and such.
Reviewer: Spuzz - favoritefavoritefavoritefavorite - February 2, 2005
Subject: Remember when computers could fit into a entire floor?
Nice little nostalgia guilt-inducing film that focuses on the many ways IBM is protecting you, and dammit, your kids, you understand? from the eeeevil people. Lots of technobabble here, but the main interest of course is how for protection back in those days, people relied on computers that took up 3 floors of space. All of this I'm sure can now fit into the computer I'm typing on. Interesting reccomended artifact.
Reviewer: jbellah - favoritefavoritefavoritefavorite - January 29, 2005
Subject: I used to repair those things
I was a computer repairman for the A/NFSQ-7, the IBM computer used in SAGE from 1965-1968 in Oregon. Boy, keeping those things running was a chore. This computer had over 56,000 electron tubes. This film brings back a lot of memories.
Reviewer: Rocketeer - favoritefavoritefavoritefavorite - May 11, 2003
Subject: Great Film for Computer Buffs
SAGE, the semi-automatic ground environment, was the first iteration of the air defense systems that guard us to this day.

A couple of key points about this film: First, it may be the first public illustration of the concept of the "black box," i.e., a self-contained, easily replaceable, electronic module. Even more interesting, to me, is that the computer on which you watch this film is thousands of times more powerful than the entire SAGE system. In fact, your computer is more powerful than all of the computers in the world combined, circa 1956.

An interesting little film about the early days of electronic computers.
Reviewer: djansing - favoritefavoritefavoritefavorite - April 4, 2003
Subject: Location of SAGE Building
North Syracuse, New York. I used to drill there with the Army Reserve on the fourth floor. Until now, I had no idea why they called it the SAGE Building. I just thought it was a really ugly concrete thing with no windows.
Reviewer: JimT - favoritefavoritefavoritefavorite - February 16, 2003
Subject: Keeping us safe from the red menace
Having been a 'SAGE cowboy' in the 1970's, this film was quite a nostalgia trigger. Some comments based on my personal experiences: One might think that the 'display scopes' are never shown with actual data on them for security reasons. In reality, it is more likely because the displays were too dim to film. The one shot that appears to show a display scope in action is actually a simulation -- it shows the data being updated about once per second. In reality, it took a full *thirty seconds* to draw all of the data for an air division, and the operator had to rely on the persistence of the CRT phospor to see the whole picture. Also, the film shows the two channels of the computer being located on the same floor; I think this might have been the original plan, but the actual machines filled two separate floors of the 150' x 150' building.
One final note: this system was fully operational until the mid-1980's.
Reviewer: srogers - favoritefavoritefavoritefavoritefavorite - February 4, 2003
Subject: SAGE - the largest computer ever built
Nicely done film that presents the importance of defense, and sells SAGE as the system to provide it. The film doesn't tell much about SAGE (probably classified at the time) but SAGE was the physically largest computer ever built occupying 2 floors of the SAGE building at IBM and requiring over 1 million watts of power. SAGE is an important system in the history of computing hardware.
Reviewer: Medon Decker - favoritefavoritefavoritefavorite - January 27, 2003
Subject: High tech stuff from the early 50s
This movie tells about the first computer based aerial surveillance system of the USA, which was realised by IBM in the early 50s. Also the 1st generation computer equipment of the famous B52s is shown.
This film features some very interesting infos for computer freaks, the average viewer might get bored. Personally I found it very interesting that already at this time graphical computer displays existed.
Ignore the usual patriotic stuff... or smile.
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